Before oil was discovered in the 1950s, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was a quiet backwater with an economy dependent upon the capture of silvery fish and luminous pearls. Oil exports have transformed the UAE into one of the Middle East’s most important economic centers—a center capped by the glittering cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, two cosmopolitan meccas bristling with art, adventure, culture, and cuisine. Beyond these bustling cities lay exquisite island oases and deep desert palaces. Our adventure took us to these cities, islands, and desert locales as we were introduced to a region where ancient customs intersect with modern landscapes.
After a direct flight from Chicago, we found the pristine Dubai airport easy to navigate and were quickly on our way to Anantara’s The Palm Dubai, a luxury resort located on the crescent of the iconic Palm Jumeirah. This artificial palm-shaped archipelago extends into the Persian Gulf and is known for its posh hotels and gorgeous views of the Dubai coastline. The resort complex boasts beautifully appointed rooms designed with contemporary Asian flair (a nod to Anantara’s Thai origins) that overlook either tranquil lagoons or a white sand beach.
Following an active day of sunbathing, kayaking, and paddle boarding, we relaxed in the resort’s glorious spa and experienced the traditional Turkish Hamman—a full-body scrub and massage. This divine experience took place in warm marble rooms adorned with traditional Turkish floral designs.
The Palm Dubai exceeded every expectation in the culinary department. Guests can begin each morning savoring Crescendo’s extensive breakfast buffet. The Beach House’s Mediterranean dishes make for a delicious midday beachside repast. Dinner options include a succulent dinner of prime cuts of meat and seafood at the Australian-themed Bushman’s Restaurant & Bar or the palate tantalizing Asian cuisine of Mekong.
Off resort, a visit to the Burj Khalifa is a top priority. The tallest building in the world, designed by Lake Forest’s own Adrian Smith, offers stunning views of Dubai and the spectacular Dubai Fountain. (Smith and his wife Nancy will host the opening night extravaganza for the World’s International Exposition in Dubai in October 2020.)
En route to our next destination, Sir Bani Yas Island off the coast of Abu Dhabi, we spent the day at two architectural wonders—the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is topped with a lattice dome created from eight kaleidoscopic layers of perforated steel that filter sunlight to create a visual “rain of light.” This intricate roof equals the Eiffel Tower’s weight yet appears to float atop the museum. In contrast, the Grand Mosque soars skyward like a falcon. Vast marble domes supported by columns adorned with golden elements hover above an intricate mosaic floor. Located on a massive 30-acre campus and surrounded by shimmering blue pools, the mosque exudes an aura of surreal calm.
After a day basking in the city’s culture, we arrived at Sir Bani Yas Island’s Anantara Al Yamm resort—an all-villa sanctuary where Emirati splendor meets a green oasis overlooking turquoise waters. Our villa was nestled on a beach peppered with peacocks and gazelles that stretched before a field of mangroves whose tendrils were kissed by the dazzling Arabian Sea at high tide. Scores of peacocks and gazelles enjoyed the mangroves at low tide and often came to our patio for a closer inspection of their guests.
The island is a wildlife sanctuary founded by His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Sheikh Zayed founded the UAE in 1971 and was President of Abu Dhabi for decades. A staunch conservationist, he desired that the island be home to free-roaming animals. The success of his efforts was apparent during a guided wildlife drive into the Arabian Wildlife Park where we marveled at the numerous species on the island. Sightings included giraffes, ostriches, cheetahs, and the prized Arabian Oryx. The island is also a hiker’s dream—Wadi (dry valley) walks are beautiful and reveal a mountainous island landscape, towering multi-colored rock corridors, and salt domes.
The resort offers many options to alleviate any hunger pangs. Our favorite culinary experience entailed an elaborate tea on the beach where we savored an assortment of hearty sandwiches, delicate scones, and sweets. Another top choice was dinner at the beachside Olio—a tranquil Italian-inspired restaurant that just might have the best Bolognese on the planet.
Guests of Al Yamm also have access to Anantara’s Al Sahel resort in the interior of the island and Anantara’s Desert Islands Resort & Spa. Al Sahel is more safari-esque than the beachy Al Yamm but both resorts deliver top-notch service. All three resorts (the only on the island) offer gorgeous restaurants and lively entertainment.
When our time at Al Yamm ended, we bid farewell to our feathered and furred island friends and took the ferry to meet our car for the trip to Anantara’s Qasr Al Sarab—a lavish oasis tucked in Liwa Desert’s Empty Quarter, the world’s largest uninterrupted body of sand. Aptly dubbed the Mirage Palace, the palatial fortress springs from the desert’s belly and is enveloped by thousands of years of intriguing traditions.
Our suite was fit for a sheikh and featured intricately carved wooden doorways, bronze chandeliers, and honed marble—all bathed in earth tones and indigenous fabrics. An immense terrace overlooked the soaring sand dunes and was a delightful spot to begin and end each day.
The resort’s desert landscape can be explored in a number of unique ways. An absolute must is the Camel Trekking adventure. After we climbed aboard our seated camel, this thrilling experience began with a bit of a jolt as our long-legged fellow up righted himself. The ensuing ride was pure magic. At the end of our Camel Trek, we found ourselves atop an immense dune and were instructed to run down its side (absolutely thrilling) to a desert gathering of sweet tea and dates. Swapping four legs for four wheels, we thoroughly enjoyed Dune Bashing as a highly skilled driver raced up, down, and even sideways over the dunes spraying sand in all directions. Guests who prefer to handle their own wheels should try the fat biking experience where a guide teaches the ancient art of “reading the sand.” This technique makes it infinitely easier to navigate the terrain. Sunset Dune Yoga is an ideal option for guests preferring less thrills and more Zen. Hunting enthusiasts and history lovers will relish a chance to interact with the resort’s falcons and Salukis, Arabian greyhounds, as the ancient art of falconry is explored. All guests—from thrill seekers to history buffs—will enjoy a trip to the resort’s heavenly spa for a relaxing culmination to a fascinating day.
Between adventures and spa rituals, we found time to indulge in multiple dining options. Whether it be a breakfast of international cuisine at Al Waha or a fragrant cup of mint tea in Al Liwan, the resort’s stunning lobby lounge, or a celebratory dinner at Suhail, the resort’s rooftop restaurant, every meal was memorable. For couples looking for the ultimate dinner date, the resort offers several romantic and unforgettable Dining by Design experiences set in the majestic dunes.
We left the UAE enriched by Arabian culture, schooled in its history, and gifted with memories of extraordinary adventures and truly spectacular landscapes. One of Anantara’s mottos is “Life is a journey”—their exquisite resorts make sojourns into foreign territories the perfect escape.
For more information, visit Anantara.com.